Judging baseball defense remains a remarkably difficult task for everyone, whether you’re an average fan, data-fiend front office analyst, or anyone in-between. Consider, as an example, the following two videos depicting right field defense, first by Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin and second by Minnesota’s Max Kepler.
To the naked eye, Naquin’s play is the more impressive catch, even independently of in-game context. After an imperfect read on the batted ball, it seemed like Naquin would be forced to play the liner on a bounce. However, at the last second, he adjusted his course, fully extended his body, and nabbed the ball, maybe an inch above the tallest blade of grass.
Meanwhile, Kepler’s catch appears routine. Off the bat, Eloy Jimenez’s liner could possibly be a single, but by the time the camera pans to right field, it becomes obvious that Kepler is all but assured to make the play. Like I said, routine.
From an aesthetic perspective, or from a “fun-ness” perspective, the Naquin play far outshines Kepler’s. It was the more spectacular catch. And yet, it’s Kepler’s, not Naquin’s, that Statcast considers the less likely play—based on the amount of time the ball was in the air and the distance each outfielder needed to cover. It was the more valuable catch.
There’s a fundamental dissonance here. Defense has long been evaluated with the so-called “eye-test,” which rewards those who make not necessarily difficult plays, but spectacular-looking plays. The thought was, a strong throw, a diving catch, these are the things that not everyone can do, but only the most special, super-athletic players. But what about those players who make difficult plays look routine? The eye-test can’t measure it. Fielding percentage can’t, either. So, for several decades, we thought players who made spectacular catchers were the great defenders, but it turns out that being a spectacular defender doesn’t make you a valuable defender.1
Valuable defenders are the ones that turn the highest percentage of their chances into outs, regardless of the manner or style in which they accomplish it. Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor has always been both a spectacular and valuable defender. But this season, he’s doing something new. This season, he’s sacrificing some of the spectacular for the value. In 2018 Francisco Lindor made strong throws whenever possible, often concluding aesthetically-pleasing, spectacular looking plays:
Lindor ranges to his right and dives for a 106 mile per hour ground ball. He then springs to his feet and fires a missile to first; beating Miguel Cabrera by several steps. The play was difficult, and Lindor made it in style. Now, from 2019:
This time, Lindor makes a nice backhanded stop, but instead of setting his feet and delivering a strike—the more spectacular play—the Indians shortstop released the baseball as quickly as he could and bounced the ball to first, barely in time to retire Jose Iglesias.
Clearly, the first play was prettier, but Cabrera would still have been thrown out with much less velocity. In this particular case it worked out, but intuitively, a harder, high-effort throw is more likely to be wild. Exhibit A:
Because of how hard JaCoby Jones hit this one-hop smash, Lindor had plenty of time to deliver the ball to first and make the out. This being 2018, he decided to attempt the aesthetically-pleasing option, very deliberately firing a missile to first. Only this time, the missile was grounded, and because of the high velocity, a scoop proved too difficult for Yonder Alonso at first base. Not only was no out recorded, but Jones was able to reach second base as the ball went out of play. Compare to 2019:
Lindor knew how hard the ball was hit. He also knew that the batter, CJ Cron, isn’t exactly fleet of foot. So, instead of going for the strong throw to finish the web gem, he made sure of the out, delivering a bounce pass to Carlos Santana at first base. I’m not just cherry-picking a couple of examples here, either. Lindor has been softly tossing balls to first all season. As you’ve seen, he’s done it on back-handed balls. He’s also done it on grounders up the middle…
…compared to last year…
Lindor hasn’t lost any ticks from his arm; he still has the ability to throw as hard as ever. Instead, he’s transitioned from throwing hard from shortstop consistently—the more attractive, less accurate option—to throwing with the minimum velocity necessary to retire the batter at first base. Similarly, Lindor has shown an uncanny ability to judge just how much time he has to deliver the ball into the first baseman’s glove. On a softly hit, backhanded grounder off the bat of Cheslor Cuthbert, who has average speed, Lindor fired the strike necessary to beat him by a step.
Against a similar grounder from lumbering White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, though, Lindor knew he had oodles of time and was able to collect himself and deliver an accurate, routine throw.
Put it all together, and Lindor has yet to make an errant throw to first base on the season.2 This is what good, cerebral players on smart teams are able to do: find hidden aspects of the game and exploit them for value. As we reconsider what makes a defender valuable, we can expect to see more little things, like sacrificing throwing strength for accuracy, creep into the game and make a big difference. What will they be? The best way to find out is by watching guys like Francisco Lindor.